Legally Blonde has arrived in picturesque Solvang in an exciting, from-the-ground-up staging that allows PCPA Theaterfest director-choreographer extraordinaire Michael Jenkinson to strut his Scenie-winning stuff without the creativity-limiting constraints of staging a musical on rented Broadway or National Tour sets.

 That’s not to put down the superb work so often done at Musical Theatre West, 3-D Theatricals, Cabrillo Music Theatre, and other Southern California Civic Light Operas whose budgets usually don’t allow them to design and build from scratch the kind of big, expensive sets these multiple-locale proscenium extravaganzas generally require. It’s just that, as a director once told me when helming a musical’s Los Angeles Regional Premiere, “I could be so much more creative if I didn’t have to use a pre-existing set.”

Not only does Jenkinson get to direct and choreograph Legally Blonde without these limitations, the Broadway adaptation of the 2001 movie smash happens to be a textbook example of how to turn a hit celluloid romcom into a nigh-on-perfect musical comedy.

Book writer Heather Hach clearly knows not to fool with success, sticking closely to Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s film adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel, which has jilted UCLA Fashion Merchandising grad Elle (Jessica Crouch) acing her LSATs, winning over the Harvard University Admissions board, and entering Harvard Law School in a bid to win back the heart of ex-boyfriend and future political hopeful Warner Huntington III (Connor Bond), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Karin Hendricks), someone “less of a Marilyn and more of a Jackie.” Naturally, Elle finds herself in for a lot more than she bargained for in Harvard’s hallowed Ivy League halls, and in admitting Elle to its student body, so does the oldest law school in the U.S.

Legally Blonde The Musical does pretty much everything right, adding to the movie’s proven crowd-pleasing plot one of the brightest and best Broadway scores in recent years (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin), one rousing dance number after another, and performances that honor the movie originals without carbon copying them.

As much as any musical in recent memory, Legally Blonde features songs which actually advance the plot rather than simply providing an entertaining musical interlude between stretches of dialog. Listen to the Original Cast Recording and you have Elle’s story told almost entirely in song. That’s not to say that Hach’s book is superfluous. It isn’t. It’s funny, charming, and intelligent—and fills in all the blanks. For once, though, a Broadway musical has songs that are not only tuneful and catchy, they’re also absolutely integral to the show. O’Keefe and Benjamin are also masters of the mini-reprise, song chunks that reappear in medley-like numbers at appropriate moments, like old friends. No wonder this is one score you will likely find yourself recalling even after hearing it just once.

 “Omigod You Guys” opens the show with bang upon bang, introducing us first to Elle’s UCLA Delta Nu sorority sisters toasting an absent Elle’s impending engagement, then to Elle’s pet Chihuahua Bruiser (“He’s not an animal. He’s family”) who tells the gals where to find their soror. She’s at the Old Valley Mall, yip-yips Bruiser, shopping for just the right dress to wear to dinner tonight, because tonight is the night that boyfriend Warner will surely propose. A snooty dress shop employee tries to hoodwink Elle into buying last year’s dress at this year’s price, but she’s no match for the savvy Miss Woods. The dress “may be perfect for a blonde, but I’m not that blonde,” Elle chastises the salesgirl. By the end of the song (yes, we’re still in the show-stopping opening number), Elle has donned the perfect gown and is off to get proposed to, or so she thinks.

 Fans of the movie will be in for few plot surprises in the musical, but in deference to Legally Blonde virgins, no more of the plot will be revealed here than is absolutely necessary. Suffice it to say that the road to a Harvard Law Degree and (hopefully) Warner’s hand in marriage is a rocky one, filled with unexpected twists and turns.

Without giving away too much storyline, here are some of Legally Blonde’s greatest musical moments, so inventively choreographed by Jenkinson, you’ll feel like you’re seeing them for the first time:

•Elle’s “personal essay” to the Harvard Board Of Admissions, in the movie a showy home video, in the musical a splashy production number (“What You Want”) featuring hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Chad and the UCLA Marching Band
•“So Much Better,” Legally Blonde’s answer to Wicked’s Act One closer “Defying Gravity,” as Elle celebrates her first major success as a Harvard law student
 •“Whipped Into Shape,” a taeboe/jump rope aerobics class taught by fitness guru turned accused murderess Brooke Wyndham (Sarah Girard)—begun in her exercise studio, continued behind prison walls, and even extended into her defense team’s law office, featuring some of the most exciting (and physically exhausting) choreography in memory
•Bend And Snap, an R&B celebration of the 99% effective (straight) man-catching move taught by Elle to best buddy/hairstylist Paulette (Elizabeth Stuart)
•Legally Blonde’s title tune, which starts off as the musical’s most beautiful, haunting melody and poignant lyric, then turns into a high energy reprise, fittingly entitled “Legally Blonde Remix,” which includes exciting, hilarious, and entirely appropriate Riverdance moves (you’ll see why).

Hach’s book is about as funny as they come, with great lines like “This is the kind of girl Warner wants. Someone serious. Someone lawyerly. Someone who wears black when nobody’s dead!” and “Thanks for the great tip on the costume party Vivienne. I see you came as last year’s sample sale” and “Whoever said tangerine was the new pink was seriously disturbed!”

Director-choreographer Jenkinson has already proven his imagination and flair in a trio of Scenie winners, 2009’s The Music Man, 2010’s West Side Story, and last summer’s Hairspray, virtually reinventing the two Broadway classics and the more recent smash.

The PCPA resident staff member does the same here, choreographing brilliantly from scratch, making inventive use of DeAnne Kennedy’s fluid scenic design (which cast members maneuver into place without the show’s missing a beat), and eliciting all-around splendid work from a supremely talented cast of twenty-eight.

As the multi-faceted titular Beverly Hills blonde, Legally Blonde introduces PCPA audiences to Sacramento native/NYU grad Crouch, whose stellar triple-threat performance would not be out of its element on a Broadway stage.

Supporting Crouch are a trio of PCPA’s busiest and most gifted resident staff members doing standout work in featured roles. The divine Hendricks has great fun sinking her teeth into Vivienne, a character whose arc makes Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love far more than just a stuck-up villainess. The phabulous Philpot gives sexy UPS Man a quirky charm, in addition to doubling as UCLA Admissions man Pforzheimer. Street-smart but self-esteem-challenged Paulette is brought to adora-ballsy life by the always marvelous Stuart, veteran of over thirty PCPA productions.

Among Elle’s peers are the ever-so swoonworthy Bond as Warner, the GQ model-handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard; the dynamic Chris Cooke as upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, proving that nerdy can be every bit as appealing as a more traditional leading man type; and the terrifically talented threesome of Ahnastasia Albert, Natasha Harris, and Layli Kayhani as Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Margot, Serena, and Pilar, who follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus—every “tragedy” deserving one—and provide killer backup to many of Elle’s songs.

PCPA fave Girard vanishes sizzlingly into Brooke, the show’s highest-energy featured role. Michael Tremblay is suitably smarmy as Harvard Professor Callahan, whose “Blood In The Water” could easily be adopted as the American Bar Association anthem. Justin Crabtree, Jessica Kiely, and George P. Scott all make vivid impressions as Elle’s fellow first year Harvard law students Aaron, Enid, and Padamadan.

A number of cast members shine in multiple roles: Billy Breed as Elle’s Dad, Winthrop, trailer-trashy Dewey, Guard, and TV Reporter; Cristina Gerla as Kate and Chutney; Leah Hart Kolb as Saleswoman, Admissions Woman, Cashier, and Judge; Emily Mara as Courtney and Kiki; and Milly Stilliens as Elle’s Mom, Store Manager, Sales Girl, and DA Joyce Riley.

 Jenkinson gives cameo characters Niko and Carlos considerably more than usual to do in this particular Legally Blonde, and the musical is more fabulously gay-inclusive for it, with the divalicious duo of hair-tossing John Keating and finger-snapping Glenn M. Snellgrose II benefitting from the beefing up of their roles.

Add to all of the above the stupendous support of Lucas Blair, Tracey Leigh Freeman, Deanna Ott, Hayley Palmer (as Whitney), Daniel J. Self (as Grand Master Chad), Daniel W. Switzer, and Steven Michael Stone, and you’ve got a cast that could just as easily be seen on the Great White Way.

Musical director Callum Morris deserves highest marks for yet another PCPA hit, and thanks to Elisabeth Rebel’s crackerjack sound design, you’d probably never guess that the production’s fifteen-piece orchestra is prerecorded and not hidden backstage. I loved Emily DeAngelis’s colorful, character-appropriate costumes, and salute her decision not to impose shirts upon the cast’s well-built chorus boys in several particularly athletic production numbers. Jennifer ‘Z’ Zornow’s nickname may well be ‘Z,’ but she scores an A+ for her vivid lighting design. Christine Collins is stage manager.

With closer-by Legally Blondes not arriving till summer and fall of 2013 (and even then, not to Los Angeles county), Elle Woods fans can make no smarter move than to plan a daytrip to Solvang to enjoy its “fine restaurants, quiet tree-lined streets, horse-drawn wagons, Hans Christian Andersen Park, windmills, Danish pastries and dozens of quaint shops” (I’m quoting from and then to spend two-and-a-half hours under the stars that will keep you as thoroughly entertained as any Broadway musical in recent memory.

Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.

–Steven Stanley
July 31, 2012
Photos: Luis Escobar Reflections Photography Studio

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